“Stand Your Ground” Laws: International Human Rights Law Implications


Introduction: Since the February 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin and other recent high-profile criminal cases, “Stand Your Ground” (“SYG”) laws in the United States have come under intense scrutiny. Florida is ground zero for the controversy. SYG laws expand the “Castle Doctrine”—a common law doctrine by which deadly force may be used in self-defense or to prevent a forcible felony when one is in the safety of one’s home—to include public places outside the home. Thus, SYG laws remove the classic common law duty to retreat in public spaces, while extending immunity from prosecution or civil suit for the use of deadly force in self-defense beyond the home. Florida’s SYG law is especially broad in this respect.

Commentators and advocates have decried several aspects of SYG laws. For one, they argue, SYG laws, and the broad immunity they afford the user of deadly force in self-defense, engender a “shoot first” mindset that results in more homicides,while muddling proper investigations and accountability for those killings. Accordingly, SYG laws have serious implications for the fundamental right to life and violate standards of necessity and proportionality. Indeed, national studies have shown that the number of homicides has increased in those states that have implemented some form of SYG laws.

Moreover, critics of SYG laws contend that they are applied in an inconsistent and discriminatory manner and have a particularly harsh impact on racial minorities, youth, and female survivors of intimate partner violence. Data indicates that SYG laws introduce bias against black victims and in favor of white defendants. These laws have been shown to have a particularly pernicious effect on minority youth, who are more likely to fall victim to an aggressor’s gun in SYG jurisdictions. Conversely, individuals who might legitimately benefit from a SYG defense, such as survivors of domestic violence who act in self-defense, could be denied access to these protections of the law—especially when they are women of color.

The uproar over SYG laws has driven advocates to take a closer look at the human rights implications of these laws. What role does such legislation play in condoning or promoting violence by private actors? What is the role of the government in a state with a SYG law to protect the rights of individuals who reside within its territory? Which human rights principles and instruments address the harmful consequences of SYG laws? Does the focus on dignity, accountability, root causes, and disparate effect offered by a human rights framework add value to the familiar critiques of SYG laws from academics and activists?

This article argues that SYG laws in the United States are over- broad because they grant a license to use deadly force and amplify existing racial, age, and gender biases. As a result, SYG laws are incompatible with several fundamental protections under international human rights law, including the rights to life, equal protection/non-discrimination, due process and access to the courts, family unity, and the best interests of the child. The recent concern about SYG laws expressed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, discussed infra in Part III, underscores the relevance of the international human rights law framework to this discussion.

Part II of this article will provide an overview of SYG laws, the consequences of SYG laws, and notable cases in which SYG laws played a part in the outcome of a prosecution. Part III will discuss the structural inequities in the United States criminal justice system that have allowed SYG laws to be applied in a manner that reflects racial, age, and gender biases. Part IV will consider the human rights law implications of SYG laws. Finally, Part V will briefly address the challenges that federalism poses in addressing the human rights issues raised by SYG laws. . . . Full Article.

Recommended Citation: Ahmad Abuznaid, et al., “Stand Your Ground” Laws: International Human Rights Law Implications, 68 U. Miami L. Rev. 1129 (2014).

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